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Africa's health workers at risk

Martina Schwikowski
May 6, 2020

A lack of protective gear in Africa is risking the lives of medical workers on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic. Some are downing tools in protest.

A medical worker wearing a mask takes a patient's blood pressure in a hospital in Ghana
Image: DW/M. Suuk

Doctors and health workers in various African countries are protesting the poor working conditions, scarcity of personal protective equipment (PPE), and the fear of infection from the coronavirus. 

Some are staying away from work, yet they are urgently needed. 

In Zimbabwe, doctors and nurses working in public hospitals went on strike weeks ago over lack of PPEs, such as such as protective suits, goggles and sanitizer, to use while treating patients. There are no signs that they'll return to duty any time soon. 

Medics in Nigeria and Kenya face a similar situation.

So far, ten medical professionals have already been infected with COVID-19 in one of Nigeria's largest states, Kano, according to DW correspondent Nasir Salisu Zango. 

Read moreCOVID-19: WHO cautions against the use of traditional herbs in Africa

With medical staff fearing for their lives, patients are suffering.

"Patients in government hospitals are not getting help and most doctors are not turning up for duty," Zango said. "They complain about the lack of protective gear like masks and are afraid of getting infected."

It's a similar situation in West Africa's Togo, where several doctors and nurses contracted the virus after coming into contact with COVID-19 patients. 

A woman wearing a protective suit sits at a table
Protective equipment like that worn by this South African health worker is lacking in many African countriesImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Spatari

Gilbert Tsolenyanu, secretary-general of Togo's hospital practitioners union SYNPHOT, says the risk is high for doctors and nurses.

The lack of protective equipment is "a big blow," Tsolenyanu told DW in an interview, "but not a reason for us to give up. We have shortcomings and challenges in the health care system, but that shouldn't stop us from winning the battle against COVID-19."

In neighboring Ivory Coast, Christophe Kouame, who heads the civil rights organization Civis Ci, told DW that the situation in his country was shocking.

"Given the few cases of infected people in the country, we should have had the minimum equipment but we are surprised that there's not enough material," he told DW.

Currently, 1,464 people in the Ivory Coast have tested positive for COVID-19 with 18 deaths.

Governments promise to help

Despite the shortcomings, African governments are trying to find solutions and much-needed support from outside. 

The West African Health Organization (WAHO), based in Burkina Faso, is in close consultation with the Economic Community for West African community of states (ECOWAS). 

Read moreAfrica rallies support for coronavirus testing kits

"We held a crisis meeting for two weeks with heads of state and came up with resolutions," said WAHO director Stanley Okolo. 

Boxes of medical supplies loaded onto a trailer are driven off the tarmac at Ghana's Kotota airport
Medical supplies donated by China, including protective equipment, arrive in GhanaImage: imago images/X. Zheng

"Medical personnel need protection because they are working on the frontlines during this crisis. Governments want to boost African companies to produce masks and other auxiliary materials," Okolo added. 

"Some countries like Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria, and Ivory Coast have insurance for their health workers and have promised to provide them with allowances."

Accommodation near hospitals

In many African countries, it is common for medical personnel and their families to be housed in staff quarters built next to hospitals. But this practice is proving difficult in the coronavirus pandemic as health workers are afraid they might infect their family members and live-in relatives. 

Thus, hospitals face the need of providing additional accommodation at workplaces. Some countries are also mulling increased salaries for health workers as a kind of risk allowance.

Read more: Ghanaians question president's promise of new hospitals

The Ebola pandemic of 2014-2015 left an indelible mark in West Africa. But the experience at that time cannot directly be applied to the crisis today.

"The Ebola epidemic mainly affected three countries: Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea and they received support from many other countries," Okolo said, "but now all African countries have been affected by the COVID-19 crisis and have less money available."

'A wake up call'

According to Okolo, "the COVID-19 crisis is a wake-up call for all of us and will initiate the rethinking of Africa's health care system."

"Improved communication structures, common measures and better wages remain a global challenge and have to be addressed, although there's still a long way to go."

"Africa's healthcare infrastructure is still weak, and It will not change overnight just because the coronavirus is now there," Okolo said.

Africa has so far registered 49,352 cases of the coronavirus and 1,959 deaths. There have also been 16,315 recoveries, according to figure from the Africa Center for Disease Control.